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Sunrises and sunsets, Part 1 (05/30/2007)
By Tom Hirsch
by Tom Hirsch

A colorful sunrise or sunset renews our appreciation of the beauty of nature. A sunrise also signifies a beginning. It's the bridge between the darkness of night and the brightness of the coming day. A dramatic sunset symbolizes the last vestiges of day, just before darkness takes over.

Regardless of what we anticipate for the coming day or experienced during the day that is coming to an end, a sky filled with blazing color can free our minds of everything but the beauty before us. The brilliance of a sunrise or sunset only lasts a few moments, but the memory can linger for a lifetime. Fortunately, the memory can be preserved in pictures.

You'll want your sunrise or sunset photos to be extra sharp in anticipation of having enlargements made. If you're a film photographer, when shooting under subdued lighting conditions you'll want to use a film fast enough to prevent camera movement, but slow enough to capture the finest detail. There are several high quality ISO 400 films on the market today, and even some ISO 800 films show very good promise in rivaling the best ISO 400 films. Digital photographers should use the camera settings that will give the finest resolution, and the lowest ISO setting that will still provide for a stable camera.

In a sunrise or sunset, the sky is the primary subject matter, but in order to enhance it's brilliance, you need a contrasting element. It's usually a foreground that serves this purpose. Because the foreground is less significant than the sky, compose the image with just enough foreground to give a sense of reference. Too much foreground will result in a relatively large area of dark, empty space. To emphasize the peacefulness and tranquility of the scene, it is usually appropriate to use horizontal composition.

By contrast, if the pictures are taken across a fairly calm river or lake, you can get some spectacular effects by including the reflection of the sun streaming across the water. Here, a very high horizon would be appropriate. Also, vertical composition might be best.

The best sunrise and sunset photos are usually taken in the direction of the sun because that's where the color is, but this can result in lens flare, and possibly burned film or digital image sensor, or even eyes, if the sun is too high in the sky. When the sun is near the horizon, the dense atmosphere filters out the dangerous light rays.

Use the two-finger rule to find a safe height for the sun above the horizon. Looking away from the sun, hold one hand out at arm's length. Extend your index and middle fingers horizontally, one finger above the other so they are touching. Align your middle finger along the horizon. The sun should be no higher above the horizon than the top of your index finger. Now the sun's rays are filtered through enough atmospheric haze that they will do no damage to your eyes or any image sensing device if exposed for short periods of time.

Incidentally, it's the atmospheric haze that produces the striking colors in a sunrise or sunset. The shorter, cooler, wave lengths of light are filtered out, allowing only the longer, warmer, yellows, oranges and reds to come through. When the sun reaches the horizon, the yellows and oranges are filtered out, leaving only the brilliant reds.

Are there any differences between sunrises and sunsets? There are virtually no differences in the colors. The major differences are in the surroundings. For example, if the photos would include any large body of water such as a lake, the water will usually be calmer early in the morning, before the rays of the sun and boaters stir up waves. Also, wisps of early morning fog can add another dimension. At sunset there is usually more activity on or near water. Another difference is that sunrises occur in the east while sunsets usually (make that always) take place in the west. 


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